Silent and Ineffable: Functions of the Unsaid in Literature and the Humanities. Nov. 26-27th, 2010 | cfp.english.upenn.edu
by Jessica C. Murphy
“Love, and be silent,” Cordelia says in Act One. To some, Cordelia’s verbal intransigence toward Lear marks her as proud and stiff-necked, to others as truth incarnate. Without doubt, it is her silence that sets the drama into motion, and the question of whether it issues from a refusal or from an inability to speak constitutes an interpretive crux of Shakespeare’s play. Cordelia’s silence can be taken to exemplify countless other instances where the meaning, structure and intensity of a literary work hinge on the significance of that which remains unsaid. It is also closely related to a long line of thinking which regards silence as a particularly effective gesture at ultimate meanings, a line that is continued today in the ritualized silences by which we commemorate the victims of wars or disasters, but which also harks back to the various forms of monastic silence and early religious taboos. If silence can be a form of respect, it can also be the sign of a pathology, and in the contemporary field of trauma studies, the failure to speak is considered as crucial to the psychological mechanisms by which anguish propagates itself from one generation to the next. Modernist poetics assigned a central role to silence, as did 20th-century philosophy. Wittgenstein’s famous conclusion to the Tractatus—“Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”—is an example of silence functioning either as an index of the Ineffable or as a willfully disciplined limit to philosophic thinking for moral purposes. Heidegger’s silent “call of conscience” is another example of an ambiguous silence since he describes it as a “mode” of speech.